Estes: Deserving Tide Won't Slide Under Saban

Repeat? Alabama blessed to have coach that will expect nothing less next season

PASADENA, Calif. - Nearly 30 years after he coached his final game at the University of Alabama, Paul “Bear” Bryant remains on the minds of many Crimson Tide fans. And on their heads.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of Alabama fans at Thursday’s BCS Championship Game were wearing replicas of Bryant’s trademark checkered houndstooth hat. That is a common sight back in Tuscaloosa, where the stadium boasts Bryant’s name and the Paul W. Bryant Museum is one of the primary attractions in town.

But following Alabama’s 37-21 victory over Texas, Tide fans might have a change of hat. They could soon be sporting the wide-brim, Panama-style headgear favored by current head coach Nick Saban.

That’s because Saban just produced the Crimson Tide’s first national championship season in 17 years, and only the second since Bryant retired. Alabama put the finishing touches on a perfect 14-0 record with a defensive effort that created five turnovers and forced Texas quarterback Colt McCoy to the sidelines early in the game with a shoulder injury.

So as the red-and-white confetti landed gently on the Rose Bowl’s lush grass field, and as Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain lifted the glass championship trophy triumphantly in the direction of the Tide’s delirious supporters, even the perpetually dour Saban had to flash a smile.

It was a smile that Saban’s wife, Terry, said would probably last for “about 24 hours.” Then it will be time for the process-oriented coach to go back to work.

Because of his intense drive and determination, it is doubtful that Saban will ever truly be satisfied with what he has produced at Alabama in three short years. He even looked angry after receiving the traditional championship Gatorade soaking from his players.

“I wish they’d use water,” Saban grumbled during the postgame news conference. “The Gatorade is awful sticky.”

The reality is, Alabama won this championship precisely because Saban is never satisfied. He has pushed and prodded and bullied the Tide to heights few thought possible as recently as two years ago, during Saban’s first season with the team, when Alabama was slumming to a .500 regular-season record that included a loss to Louisiana Tech.

“A lot of people didn’t believe we could do something like this, but Coach made sure we knew we could,” Alabama senior linebacker Cory Reamer said. “Now they’re never going to forget us. We’re always going to be a part of this Alabama tradition.”

Sure, it can be argued that Alabama received a major dose of good fortune when McCoy left the game and never returned. But the injury occurred because McCoy took a hit from a relentless Alabama defense that, despite giving up a few big plays, shut down the Longhorns in the first half and then held them in check when it mattered in the second half.

While McClain acknowledged that Texas was not the same team without their longtime leader at quarterback, he cringed at the notion that the Tide’s victory should have any sort of asterisk attached to it.

“I commend them for the game they played without their best player,” McClain said. “I feel bad that he got hurt and couldn’t finish the game. But hey, we won. We went out there and fought to the end. You can’t take this victory away from us. In the end you see Alabama, national champions. End of story.”

That sounds a lot like something his head coach would say. All that matters is the end result. The scoreboard does not lie. Alabama won, Texas lost. End of story. Everything else, as Saban would say, is a lot of static.

It is an attitude that Saban has sold to his players, and that they now follow enthusiastically. That is why there is a good chance Alabama will be the preseason favorite to repeat as national champs next year. They have the talent, they have the resources, and they have a head coach who expects nothing less.

In fact, do not be surprised if Saban quietly uses the McCoy issue as offseason motivation for his returning players. He will contend that, despite winning the national championship, the Tide still doesn’t have the respect of the nation. He will convince his players that they have to go out and do it all again, or else the team will not receive the recognition it deserves.

That is the Saban way. It’s not a suitable style for everybody. Some players definitely would balk at his dictatorial ways. Some assistant coaches as well.

Still, one thing cannot be argued. Saban’s style, at least for this college football season, worked.

“He’s just a coach who is driven, and he has a vision, and he tries to do his best to instill his characteristics in us,” said Alabama running back Mark Ingram, who has both a national title and a Heisman Trophy under Saban’s tutelage. “Just the things he can do to influence younger players is how he gets these national championship teams.

“He influences athletes to buy into his system. … He just tries to instill the characteristics that drive him into us, and we feed off each other.”

And so a program that was starving for a national championship has been fed, and the beast that is Alabama football will briefly be sedated.

But Alabama fans will quickly be expecting more. Talk will begin soon, if it already hasn’t, about the Tide’s chances of repeating. About becoming the dominant team in college football for years to come.

And they will be happy in knowing that, in Nick Saban, they have a coach who also expects nothing less. Just like that guy who used to wear the houndstooth hat.

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